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by Anthony C. E. Quainton
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
November 30, 2017

These days Generals are thick on the ground in Washington. Not only is the Secretary of Defense a general, but so too are the current and former National Security Advisors to the President and so is the White House Chief of Staff. Military discipline would seem to be the order of the day. Their culture of discipline may seem particularly ironic in one of the most disorganized administrations that we Americans have ever seen. It is nonetheless real.

Does it matter that generals seem to be more visible in policy positions than ever before? Or is this just a perception of relative power and a sign of the decline of influence of the State Department and the atrophy of its capacity to manage crisis situations? Americans often forget that in the past the State Department has had three generals as Secretary of State (Marshall, Haig and Powell) and that there have been four National Security Advisors with military backgrounds (Poindexter, Powell, Scowcroft and Jones).

The military have had critical foreign policy/national security roles since the end of the Second World War. Nonetheless many would argue we are now in a new situation given the inexperience in national security matters of the current President.

The issue of militarization of foreign policy is a common theme. One of the New York Times 100 notable books of 2016 was Rosa Brooks How Everything became War and the Military Became Everything. In the spring of 2016 Georgetown University Press published a collection of essays entitled Mission Creep designed to explore the Militarization of US Foreign Policy. As far back as 2003 Dana Priest, a journalist for the Washington Post, wrote a book entitled The Mission which asserted that American diplomacy was being outgunned by the military and that the United States was becoming increasingly dependent on the military to manage its role in world affairs. She claimed that “on (president Bill) Clinton’s watch the military slowly, without public scrutiny or debate came to surpass its civilian leaders in resources and influence around the world”. Specifically she identified the regional combatant commanders. (In Europe the Supreme Allied Commander Europe—SACEUR) as sources of increasing diplomatic influence. In the introduction to her book she assets that “U.S. leaders have been turning more and more to the military to solve problems that are often, at their root, political and economic.” This shift she argues “has been going on for more than a decade without much public discussion or debate.” Ms. Priest describes a world in which four star generals and admirals fly around the world in large jet aircraft, accompanied by substantial staffs to engage in diplomatic contacts not just with ministers of defense and force commanders but with heads of state and government as well. She asserts that they were eclipsing the role of hapless Ambassadors who lacked both resources and access.

It was and is still true that the Combatant Commanders have at their disposal substantial resources. They can offer foreign governments materiel, training and in some cases development assistance. They are also a remarkably well-educated and impressive group. Many have doctoral degrees. All have over thirty years of military service. They are not amateurs. In comparison, successive administrations of both political parties have regarded diplomacy as an amateur business, reflected in the fact that about a third of Ambassadors are appointed from outside the career service, often to key posts. In this new Trump administration, politicians or business friends of the President have already been appointed to Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing and London, continuing a practice which goes back across the last five or six presidencies. Even more disturbing from a career Foreign Service point of view is the Administration’s decision to appoint a non-career Director General of the Foreign Service, for the first time in the Department’s history.

For all that, Ms. Priest may have overstated her case. From interviews which I and my colleague Dr. Shoon Murray carried out last year with over 20 recently retired ambassadors from all corners of the globe, we found that almost all said they welcomed these military resources. They did not feel that the occasional high visibility visits of combatant commanders undermined their authority or access to the key players in the host government. They saw local officials on a regular, even daily basis, while the combatant commander would come through the capital city once or twice a year. Indeed, they saw these generals and admirals as allies in a common cause. One general went so far as to require his senior staff to wear buttons which proclaimed “One Team, One Fight” to ensure the complementarity of the military and diplomatic roles. There were, to be sure, tensions, but they arose largely from personal friction between the Ambassador and the Combatant Commander about style and not over issues of regional or bilateral policy.

Nonetheless for at least 15 years policy analysts have been asserting that this growth in military power and influence has harmed American foreign policy. It is currently fashionable to say that if your only policy tool is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail. Critics of the status quo assert that the increasingly capable and well-funded military has become the instrument of choice when action has to be taken to deal with any crisis anywhere in the world.

What is certainly true is that the military and its parent the Department of Defense have enjoyed resources far in excess of what the State Department enjoys. Ten times as much in fact. With resources comes capability. Although in recent years the Defense Department budget has been constrained, it has always been vastly greater than the budget of the civilian foreign affairs agencies including the State Department, the Agency for International Development, The Voice of America and others. The current administration intends to substantially increase funding for the military and to give it even greater capabilities to respond to looming crises in North Korea, Iran, Ukraine and the Middle East, to name only a few of the front burner crisis situations that are engrossing the attention of President Trump and his team. The military will get more hardware. Our nuclear capabilities will be substantially modernized.

At the same time Diplomacy is being marginalized. The State Department and American Diplomacy face radical reorganization and resource shortages, both in budgetary and human terms, which will surely mean dislocations and in the short term loss of operational effectiveness. In addition, The Trump administration has proposed a thirty percent cut in its budget. Foreign assistance is to be greatly reduced and USAID potentially abolished or folded into the State Department. In terms of personnel over one hundred of our most senior officers, both men and women have gone into retirement and several hundred more are being offered buyouts to persuade them to take early retirement. This hollowing out of the diplomatic capabilities of the United States can will not bring us closer to peace or a resolution of any of the most important crises which we face. Diplomacy, by its very nature, involves using the skills of imagination, information and engagement to create win-win solutions for all the participants. All of this requires training and years of experience in the field. For the military the outcome usually must be one-sided; victory for us, defeat for them.

What has all this meant in practical terms in terms of the Washington policy debate?

The Trump administration and to a large extent the Republican Party regard the eight years of the Obama administration as one in which America failed to exert its traditional leadership role. They were horrified when Obama was quoted during the Libyan crisis as saying that America would lead from behind; that is, behind our European allies. They criticized his decision to pull combat troops out of Iraq as premature and were critical when he seemed poised to do the same in Afghanistan. These were not trivial concerns. The State Department was seen to be the agent of a ‘spineless’ foreign policy, always ready to compromise even at the expense of vital American interests. Republicans saw the nuclear agreement with Iran as proof that diplomacy was an inadequate first line of defense for the United States. The State Department and its political allies in the Democratic party repeatedly called for greater use of diplomatic and soft power tools to advance American national interests.

The result is that for a substantial number of American voters the Democrats were seen as the party of weakness and withdrawal. President Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” is a reflection of this view. His slogan also implies that for America to regain its traditional leadership role it will have to demonstrate that it has a more muscular foreign policy. The military will be needed as never before.

At the National Security Council, where foreign and security policies are coordinated and policy papers prepared for the President, the first of Trump’s national security advisors went out of his way to recruit active duty military officers to fill many of the key positions. He made it clear that what the President wanted was a policy staff with real world experience of war, who understood the importance and uses of hard power and who were capable of keeping at bay the limp-wristed forces of compromise of the State Department’s diplomats. It seemed that soft power was out and hard power in.

In all fairness it should be noted that the Democrats were not always champions of the Foreign Service. The numbers of political appointees to ambassadorial positions reached a record high towards the end of the Obama administration. The appointment of political appointees in the Department went down five or six levels in the bureaucracy in order to assure that the president’s priorities would be carried out. If Republicans tended to think that diplomats were limp-wristed and liberal, the Democrats often saw them as doctrinaire conservatives unwilling to move with the liberal currents of the time.

Ironically one of the greatest defenders of the Foreign Service was the last general to be Secretary of State, Colin Powell. He pushed through a diplomatic readiness initiative which substantially increased the number of Foreign Service Officers and for the first time created a ‘float’ that enabled more officer to receive training.

The overall situation, however, is not so clear. Two of America’s most distinguished diplomats Ryan Crocker and Nicholas Burns recently drew attention to the hollowing out of American diplomacy in an article earlier this week in the New York times. They pointed out that “the United States is facing an extraordinary set of national security challenges. While we count on our military ultimately to defend the country, our diplomats are with it on front lines and in dangerous places around the world. They are our lead negotiators as we work with our European allies in NATO to contain growing Russian power on the Continent. They are our lead negotiators seeking a peaceful end to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Our diplomats are assembling the coalition of countries in East Asia to counter the irresponsible regime of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un.”

They are almost certainly right.

The traditional view of decision-making is that civilians do policy creation and definition and to a large extent carry it out. Only in extreme situation is the military called in to execute the policy. But what happens when both the Secretary of Defense, traditionally a civilian, and the national Security Advisor are both military men. The danger is clearly that military values and capabilities will come to dominate the policy debate. This arrangement seems to imply that military men will seek military solutions to problems that need diplomatic solutions.

However, many experts point out that the military worldview is essentially conservative. Historically presidents have found it hard to persuade the military to take action. All too often the Pentagon raises issues of resources, timing, capabilities and emphasizes the difficulty of taking action rather than the desirability of rushing to engage. They will do what they are told to do, but they are surprisingly risk averse. The lessons of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have not been lost on them. They shy away from options that require boots on the ground. Hence the paralysis of American policy in Syria.

Pulling in the opposite direction is the revolution in military capabilities and the more frequent use of remote technologies which put few American lives at risk. Stand-off weapons facilitated by satellite or drone control seem relatively safe and often are recommended to the President as appropriate means of punishing international malefactors and terrorists. These rapidly evolving technologies probably contribute more to the militarization of American foreign policy than the question of whether those in charge wear uniforms or not. President Trump’s use of cruise missiles again a single airfield in Syria was a sign of this trend.

The discussion of resources is, in fact, complex. The military establishment frequently complains that it lacks the resources, whether in terms of manpower or equipment to fulfill the many tasks which the President wants it to carry out, particularly when the time frame for action is short. Military doctrine calls for the capability to fight two major wars simultaneously.  That, of course, requires an ability to deploy an extraordinary range of land, sea and air forces. That well may be beyond the current capabilities of U.S. forces.

Yet civilians and diplomats, ambassadors in particular, also complain bitterly about the dramatic shortage of resources available for diplomacy. The dramatic decline in morale in the State Department reflects the perception that the political elite does not value diplomatic skills or the expertise which diplomats bring to the table. One recently retired senior Foreign Service Officer told a group several weeks ago that the atmosphere inside the State Department was one of “chaos and fear”. Hiring freezes, budget cuts, politicization of the senior policy levels in the State Department all point to this decline in respect for the core skills of diplomacy. Diplomats are, as I have indicated,too often seen as politically biased and, in the present context viscerally hostile to the President. The fact that last year over one hundred retired Ambassadors signed a letter calling on the American people to vote against President Trump only deepened the perception of potential disloyalty. Several recent dissent memoranda about the withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and of the failure to list Burma, Iraq and Afghanistan on the list of countries employing child soldiers have further fueled the distrust of the Foreign Service.

Nonetheless the senior military leadership and the top civilians at the Pentagon continue to be outspoken in their support for more resources for the State Department. They, unlike their political leaders, see diplomacy as the first line of defense. The military knows that it will be called in only when diplomacy has failed.

In sum, we are not facing a militarization of American foreign policy but the marginalization of diplomacy as the effective alternative to military force. The denigration and dismissal of soft power, even when it is renamed smart power, has led to a perception of diplomatic weakness and the concomitant rise of military influence on the policy process. It is a sad reality that there are more and more hammers in the policy toolbox and fewer alternative weapons. The result may be that a president anxious to make America great again and to demonstrate the effectiveness of American leadership and power may look for a place of his choosing to demonstrate American power. President Trump does not seem temperamentally interested in the prolonged and protracted process of diplomacy. His recent tweet questioning the utility of Secretary Tillerson’s efforts to engage the North Koreans in dialogue is an example of this skepticism. In these circumstances we should not be surprised if the United States were to decide to choose a target of opportunity in Iran or North Korea or Syria to show off its military might. This will not reflect the institutional militarization of American foreign policy but rather the emotional need of many Americans, frustrated by our loss of global standing to demonstrate  that America can indeed be great again. Neither a resourced military nor a marginalized diplomacy should want that to happen.bluestar


Ambassador Anthony Quainton is currently Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University.


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